Wimbledon way becomes template for game's purists
Cup tie with Liverpool evokes fond memories for a club that always puts supporters first
In football, it is often about the little details. The triangular corner flags that will be seen when AFC Wimbledon play Liverpool tomorrow in the third round of the FA Cup are one of those little details. The flags tell a story of a club's fight for existence and a fight for its history.
AFC Wimbledon was formed in 2002, but it has a history that's longer than that. Only clubs that have won the FA Cup are permitted to use triangular corner flags, so when they fly from every corner of the ground, it is a statement about the club and its origins.
When AFC Wimbledon was being formed in 2002, somebody asked Kris Stewart, who would become chairman, what to enter on the FA form where it asked the start-up date of the new club . His reply was swift. "1889," he said, stating the date when Wimbledon was formed as Wimbledon Old Centrals. The history of Wimbledon included the FA Cup win in 1988 against Liverpool, but for a while the history belonged to someone else. The incredible story of AFC Wimbledon includes the fight to claim that back.
In May 2002, an independent panel set up by the Football Association sanctioned Wimbledon's move to Milton Keynes and two years later the club which was allowed to move was renamed MK Dons.
Wimbledon had looked at moving out of south-west London before, most notably to Dublin in the 1990s, a plan that had been driven by Sam Hammam and Joe Kinnear, with Eamon Dunphy leading a publicity drive. The idea of the Dublin Dons had, according to Hammam, the backing of the other Premier League clubs, but was ultimately blocked by the FAI.
Moving to Milton Keynes shouldn't have been much easier once the Football League had unanimously come out against the move, but an appeal by the then chairman Charles Koppel resulted in the independent panel.
AFC Wimbledon was formed after that panel allowed the move to go ahead. In the panel's report, it was stated that "resurrecting the club from its ashes as, say, 'Wimbledon Town' is, with respect to those supporters who would rather that happened so they could go back to the position the club started in 113 years ago, not in the wider interests of football".
AFC Wimbledon already had a cause, but now they had a slogan. 'Not in the wider interests of football' came to sum up the perceived attitude of the establishment to supporters.
AFC Wimbledon harnessed that as they became a club run by supporters and formed out of the frustration that supporters feel.
It was driven, too, by the obsessive understanding of what supporters want. In 2006, the Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association entered into negotiations with MK Dons - known as 'the franchise' by AFC Wimbledon fans - over their history.
WISA agreed that it would no longer actively ask its members to encourage boycotts and fixture cancellations involving MK Dons, who were struggling to play pre-season friendlies as a result of previous protests. In return, the history and honours of Wimbledon FC would be handed to the Borough of Merton, where the club had played at Plough Lane and where they hope to return in the near future.
Wimbledon won the FA Amateur Cup in 1963 and the FA Cup in 1988. The only other clubs to win both trophies were Old Carthusians and the Royal Engineers. Wimbledon's rise from non-league football to the old first division took nine years. AFC Wimbledon were formed in 2002 and began playing in the Combined Counties League. Nine years later, they were in the Football League.
They can say that the game against Liverpool tomorrow is a rerun of the 1988 final. "This game means a huge deal," says Niall Couper, Wimbledon fan and author of a history of the club. "This is a game that is putting a bit of history back. For most of the fans, AFC Wimbledon is Wimbledon FC. This is another chance to say to the wider public what the history means and to get people to remember the injustice that led to the formation of AFC Wimbledon."
The club's rise has been extraordinary. Their first ever goal was scored by Glenn 'Trigger' Mulcaire, who achieved more prominence for his role in the phone hacking scandals than he did as a footballer. The club rose through the non-league pyramid, remaining committed to the ownership model which they felt would protect them from suffering the same injustice again.
"We wanted to right an injustice, but also to look at the wider world of football and say there is another way. You can have a successful supporter-owned club which is community-based. It doesn't have to be the old traditions," Couper says.
There may be limits to the club's ambitions because they won't be taken over by a wealthy investor. In 2006, Darragh MacAnthony approached the club. There was talk of a sponsorship deal, but it became clear that MacAnthony wanted to buy the club and that could never happen. There might be limitations, but Couper points out that Wimbledon is a part of London which has a catchment area of 1.5 million people, so there is room to expand.
In 2011, they returned to the Football League when they beat Luton Town in a penalty shoot-out at the City of Manchester stadium. In a series of tweets that led to his resignation as CEO of Supporters Direct, the body that had worked closely with Wimbledon, Dave Boyle captured the mood when the return to the Football League was secured. "The bible can f*** off. This is the greatest story ever told."
Wimbledon's was a story that offered another way, a way that put supporters at the heart of the story. "It's often not seen in the best interests of the very wealthy owners of some football clubs to back supporters' movements," Couper says. "Because supporters have a different agenda to some owners of some clubs who actually look on football as a way of making money."
Wimbledon offered an alternative and as a League Two side, they continue to look upwards. Last week, it was announced that Chelsea are in discussions with the club over the purchase of their Kingsmeadow ground, something which could go ahead once Wimbledon receive planning permission in Merton.
Last November, Wimbledon submitted a planning application to build a new stadium on the Wimbledon greyhound track beside the old Plough Lane. When they return to Merton, the honours board will be handed over by the council to the club to be hosted in the club's museum.
Couper sees the game against Liverpool as "almost the perfect finale" with the club on the verge of a return to their spiritual home.
The history of the club suggests there will always be another chapter, another goal that can be achieved. The club has been told that it has been impossible to be ambitious with an ownership model that prevents the expansion that an owner with deep pockets can bring. But they have been told many things were impossible since 2002 and in 1988 plenty of people thought it was impossible that Wimbledon could beat Liverpool.
On that day, Dennis Wise took a free-kick in the 36th minute which Lawrie Sanchez headed into the Liverpool goal.
"We were told that this was a club that wasn't sustainable, that there was no chance of moving back to Wimbledon. All those falsehoods have been shot out of the water. We have shown how much supporter power can achieve," Couper says.
Victory tomorrow night is improbable, but they have become used to achieving that. "It's nice to be worrying about the football on the pitch," Couper adds. "It would be nice to have a header flying into the corner after 36 minutes after a free-kick from our Dennis Wise equivalent George Francomb."
Wimbledon have done it before. Their history and their corner flags tell them that anything is possible.
AFC Wimbledon v Liverpool
Setanta Ireland, tomorrow 7.55
Sunday Indo Sport